If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that lately I’ve been listening to “Cortez the killer” (by Neil Young with Crazy Horse) a lot. Writing about that track reminded me why I don’t own an iPod, or other portable digital music player.
It’s not that I don’t like music, or music on the go. On the contrary, music pretty much lies at the centre of everything I do. It’s just that iPods, and their like, are synonymous with the proliferation of MP3s and a growing acceptance of convenience over quality. Not owning an iPod is my personal stand against a generation which is happy to listen to music that has had the life crushed out of it. Music is under attack, and has been for some time.
Listen to “Cortez the killer” on MP3 and you’ll miss most of what’s special about that recording – a rich, warm, organic soundscape, the result of production values that are the very antitheses of today’s penchant for over production which seeks perfection but delivers stale, bland, anemic, music with metronomic regularity. On MP3, you’ll hear a tune and a beat, but not much else.
Today is a landmark. This morning I purchased a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Turntable and resurrected my vinyl collection. What the combination of vinyl and turntable lack in convenience, they more than make up for in audio quality.
Most people are happy with their digital players and formats. They like the convenience. Music can be easily copied and shared without degradation. Digital formats don’t deteriorate the more you play them, like vinyl does. Millions of households have binned their large hi-fi systems in favour of docking stations. But musicians and audiophiles know that the reason most people are happy with formats such as MP3 is that they have no reference point, no benchmark. They don’t know what quality audio sounds like. They’ve never been exposed to it.
Earlier this year, Neil Young appeared at the D:Drive Into Media conference and lamented that while modern formats like MP3 are convenient, they sound lousy. He also criticised CDs, which he claims offer only 15% of the audio information contained on master recordings.
My goal is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.
We live in the digital age and, unfortunately, it’s degrading our music, not improving it.
What everybody gets [on an MP3] is 5% of what we originally make in the studio.
This is a great leap backwards that technology has provided. Never have we had more music at our disposal, and it’s a while since it’s had the potential to sound worse.
He called on the public to stage a grassroots movement to demand higher-quality audio and claimed that he and Steve Jobs, the late boss of Apple, had discussed high definition formats and the need to develop high-def playback devices.
Currently, most digital music is available in either MP3 or AAC format. Both of these formats compress music down to a small percentage of the master digital file size. Thus, when transferred to such lossy digital formats, very little remains of the audio quality, life and soul that existed in the original recording . This happens whether the master was recoded and saved onto analogue reel-to-reel tape or a huge high definition digital file – when compressed, the music gets crushed either way.
High definition digital formats that preserve audio quality, to a greater or lesser extent, do exist. Apple supports a lossless music format called Apple Lossless Audio Codec (or ALAC), for playback via iTunes and iPods. This is all very well, so long as you have access to music in that format or have the tools and know-how to copy vinyl to ALAC. Apple offers much lower resolutions (MP3 or AAC) to customers for downloading from iTunes. Lossless formats currently available include FLAC, ALS, and ATRAC. There are also other uncompressed high definition formats, which are are favoured by extreme audiophiles.
High-def music files are much larger than low-def formats, so downloading and storing high-def formats takes longer and uses more storage space. High-def music is available to purchase online, but it is only offered by smaller, specialist sites.
What we need is for the industry to define and agree on a single high-def format for the general consumer market and to develop playback devices to support it. The promotion of high-def music in popular download channels, such as iTunes, would give it more exposure to the mainstream. It would give people a benchmark against which to compare the sad, sorry little MP3.
Neil Young praised Steve Jobs as a pioneer of digital music, but said when he went home, he listened to vinyl. Until music is readily available to purchase in an industry-standard high definition format which is supported by a wide range of playback devices, I’m with Steve Jobs on this one.